A Response to the Harvard Professors
Two Harvard professors have accused me of trying to "censor" them.
This is a long and upsetting post about the ethical conduct of two Harvard professors—Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani—who are seeding a media campaign to support their proposal of adding 500,000 more armed police officers. To lighten things up, I include the latest in my series of oil paint and flower mosaics that I’ve been making from flowers that I grow. I hope you enjoy it!
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Back in November, I wrote a piece entitled A Warning to Journalists About Elite Academia. In it, I critiqued an academic article in which two Harvard professors called for the hiring of 500,000 additional armed police officers in the U.S.—the greatest expansion of police in modern world history. The two professors have been on something of a public relations tour, seeding this idea of 500,000 more cops in major journalistic outlets like the Washington Post, arguing that our society would be better off with greatly expanded surveillance and what they estimate to be 7.8 million additional forcible arrests each year.
After conversation with other academics, students, and impacted people who were alarmed at how poorly supported the Harvard professors’ article was, I wrote an article explaining why the piece lacked basic tenets of scholarly rigor like honesty, completeness, fair presentation of available evidence, engagement with obvious contrary considerations, and making claims not supported by the evidence. I also explained why their arguments supporting 500,000 more cops were woefully wrong or misleading on their merits. I further argued that the deceptive, incomplete, and incorrect assertions were particularly dangerous at a time of rising fascism, police surveillance of abortion care, police targeting of voting rights, and rising police repression of social movements seeking more equal and sustainable approaches to the environment, migration, gender, healthcare, housing, etc. Finally, I observed that the article was particularly harmful because the professors claimed to be “progressives” making these unfounded and misleading arguments from the left and out of concern for the most marginalized people.
Last night, I was just alerted to the fact that, nine days later (and two days after a similar critique I co-authored with the sociology professor Alex Vitale was published in The Crime Report), the two professors posted a link to a PDF document on a private Dropbox account entitled “Reply to Alec Karakatsanis.” I do not know how this “reply” was disseminated, but I was only alerted to its existence last night by another professor. The reply by the Harvard professors accuses me of trying to “censor” them.
The reply raises more serious ethical and scholarly questions than it answers. Now that I have seen it, despite it being two months since they posted it, I think it merits a few responses because it is a good learning moment about the standards of and ethics in elite discourse. It is as good an illustration as any of how adept some elites are at pretending to have rigorous discussion in tone and verbiage but operating without the kind of transparency, curiosity, humility, meticulousness, and accountability that all of us who care about the advancement of knowledge should aspire to.
In sum, their reply seems more like a PR move than a document designed to actually persuade well-meaning rigorous thinkers who have read both their article and my critique. If I were a student of theirs, or one of their colleagues, I would be alarmed at how they have handled an aggressive but good faith critique of their work.
Background Relevant to the “Reply”
I encourage you to read my critique in full because it has illustrative examples and explanations. But for those who don’t have the time, I made at least four categories of objections to the article. As a preliminary matter relating to media framing, I pointed out that the professors called their plan the “first world balance” and opened their piece with various amateurish graphs and commentary comparing police in the U.S. with other countries, claiming that the U.S. had fewer police per capita than other countries. They tried to reassure readers and normalize the concept of 500,000 more police by (falsely) claiming that their proposal would merely make the U.S. look like “Spain” and therefore “could hardly be considered a police state.” I explained that the authors had admitted in a private email conversation with me that this claim was untrue, that they had deliberately used a low estimate of the number of police that they knew was wrong, and that based on more appropriate estimates the U.S. was at or slightly above median number of police per capita. Yikes. I also noted that they omitted from the discussion the explosion of private police forces in the U.S., as well as the extraordinarily high (by international levels) police budgets in the U.S., due in part to the far more advanced surveillance, weaponry, longer work weeks, and overtime that make the policing footprint in the U.S. far different than their comparison suggested. I thought their failure to disclose some of this information was bad practice, unethical, and potentially misleading to non-expert journalists. We also quibbled over their bizarre choice to focus on “police per homicide” and “police per prisoner” as a matter of research design because all that shows is that the U.S. has high levels of incarceration and homicide, not that we need more cops. But, I noted that none of this mattered too much because both they and I agreed that these points that they emphasized weren’t even central to their argument.
Second, far more importantly, I explained that the Harvard professors ignored most of the costs of policing. This was weird because they told readers that they had evaluated the costs and benefits and were making an overall policy recommendation. Not only did they ignore all the various forms of police criminality and violence, but in the course of making a supposedly politically astute proposal, they ignored the organized power of police unions, the police bureaucracy, and the for-profit policing industry generally. I gave numerous examples of how those interests have been consistently successful right-wing forces in our society’s history and present. I talked about police using their resources to crush progressive social movements, and I talked about the growing threat to women, trans people, immigrants, and others. I talked about the role of police in crushing labor organizing. About their role in evictions, fighting against health care expansion, gentrification, redlining, immigration enforcement, intimidation of politicians and journalists, civil forfeiture, and extraction of wealth from poor communities. I explained that while they claimed their proposal would be funded by a massive reduction in incarceration, the political economy of their proposal would ensure that such a reduction would be impossible. I noted how odd it was for scholars to make a proposal about how the benefits of something outweigh the costs without counting most of the costs. Yikes again.
Third, I pointed out that the article’s core premise was that the authors were reluctantly forced to recommend more police because addressing the “root causes” of crime (like inequality and poverty and lack of education and healthcare, etc.) is not “feasible.” This is a ridiculous premise for self-proclaimed “progressives,” and I also more expansively critiqued their political analysis of what is “feasible” (they suggested that reducing prison population by 85% was somehow feasible) versus what is not feasible (the professors argued that more investment in early childhood education and reducing inequality wasn’t feasible). This isn’t too important to their argument, but it’s a cynical and unfortunate thing for students to be exposed to. More subtly, their lip service to reducing prison populations (which the authors knew is impossible with increased political power of police) is one way that the authors attempt to bolster their “progressive” credentials and to insulate themselves from critique for the authoritarian nature of their proposal. I noted that there is a long tradition of authoritarian policy being presented as “progressive.”
Finally, and of utmost importance, I explained that the entire core of their work rested on one or two citations to the work of a few other pro-police academics. That’s what made their project so strange and uninteresting: stripping away the marketing of the “first world balance,” the key assertions weren’t their own academic project or novel. Everything hinged on the assertion by a couple other pro-police academics that more police would reduce “serious crime.” If this were true, and that 500,000 more police reduce “serious crime” and don’t bring any other bad costs to outweigh those benefits, then of course it makes sense to have more police! As they admit in their reply, everything hinges on police being the most efficient “feasible” way to reduce this “serious crime.” I pointed out a number of flaws with this idea, including that they didn’t support it and that they didn’t mention any of the contrary scholarship showing that more police would not reduce “serious crime” and would even increase many forms of crime and harm. Yikes, how do you not even discuss that other widely available evidence?! Crucially, I also explained why their conception of “serious crime” was simplistic and ignored most harms, including illegal ones. They created no foundation that what they vaguely defined as “serious crime” is a meaningful metric. They didn’t even establish the most basic thing of all: what “serious crime” was being measured, and how is the social concept of crime constructed? As a result, I pointed out that they were able to elide that police are actually associated with massive increases in certain types of crime by elites that cause massive harm, and in certain types of harms that our society has decided not to criminalize even though they devastate the most vulnerable people.
I concluded by focusing on what all of my critiques meant during this particular media and political moment:
The professors reply says that I am “unserious” and attempting to “censor” them:
The November 12 “reply” by the professors to me does not remotely meet the force of my critiques.
First, and most importantly, their reply does not address the most significant of my critiques. Without explanation, they say in one sentence that most of my critiques are “unserious.” I suppose one way of responding to a litany of careful criticisms is to say they are all wrong but not explain why. I leave it to readers to read what I wrote and to decide if all of the detailed critiques can be dismissed without explanation.
Second, almost the entirety of their reply is devoted to a distraction: our disagreement about how they counted the number of police—an issue that they admit and that I agreed was not central to their actual argument. I still believe that what they did in order to generate more media attention for the article—deliberately using an undercount for international comparison and then hiding their methodology—does not meet the standards to which academic research must aspire. And even their reply still fails to engage with a lot of the most basic questions here that scholars would want to explain: Why use number of officers but not budgets?; Why not account for longer work weeks and larger overtime in the U.S.?; How to correct for extreme discrepancies in data across countries in terms of who counts as a police, whether civilian employees are included, and whether things like border patrol and military are included in some country data but not others?; Why use police/prisoner and police/homicide as the relevant metric? And their explanation for why they excluded government sanctioned private police forces from their analysis of policing footprint (like the Harvard University police, for example) without explaining why or even mentioning the decision to readers was embarrassing.
Third, that’s basically it. Their reply makes no effort to respond to anything that I said about the costs of policing, the political power of police, the role of police in disrupting progressive movements, or the ineffectiveness of police at reducing “serious crime.” They only note that “crime” does many of the same bad things as policing, so if they are right that more police reduce crime, then they are still right! But one of the points of my critique is that this is a big “if”! Without engaging with any of my arguments about the nature of policing, which crimes police actually increase, and the flaws in the tiny sample of research they cherry picked about police effectiveness, etc. they just simply assert “Karakatsanis has done nothing to sway us from our position.” That’s fine, I didn’t think I would convince them because I did not believe that they were so incompetent to have never thought about many of my critiques—I criticized them for omitting these essential points and related evidence from the public presentation of their work. But the purpose of a scholarly reply and dialogue about important topics is to explain why. One of the main critiques I made of their piece is that they never explained to readers why they came to their views because they left out so many of the logical and evidentiary steps that would be necessary to a well-meaning smart person coming to that view.
Instead they engage in a troubling kind of deception that I have elsewhere criticized as copaganda. They continuously assure us that they are “progressives” who care a lot about marginalized people. It is as if this pretense to compassion substitutes for good scholarly work. This feels like an attempt to get people to not ask hard questions by fostering an assumption that really smart progressives must have done a lot of thinking and come to a reasonable conclusion based on deep study and good values. (The failure to discuss the most basic costs, the political history of police, or the directly contrary research to the studies they rely on undermines their claim to be “progressives” who only arrived at the view that we need the greatest expansion of police in world history as a last resort. But it takes some expertise to identify some of these things, so the ruse may work with casual readers.)
Fourth, they continue the same propaganda techniques that I objected to originally. They open their reply by asserting that they are “socialists” who deeply care about inequality, especially racial inequality. But, they assert that any redistribution of wealth will require “the mobilization of the poor and the working class,” and that this is “a distant prospect.” So, they are just repeating the same nonsense as before about how social change is not possible. Most glaringly, they still ignore the field of scholarship about how increasing the power of police would hinder the very social mobilization of progressive movements that they claim they want. Eugene Debs would be rolling over in his grave. As I wrote in my original piece:
These professors were smart to combine their call for a globally unprecedented expansion of police with a weak, half-hearted assertion that they would desire to reduce incarceration—something they know, but didn’t tell readers, is impossible with increased police political power. But the Washington Post gave up the game for them. In a November 30 opinion piece based on their article, the Washington Post did precisely what I had warned about: it embraced their call for more police but said that reducing prison populations isn’t feasible yet politically. So, the Washington Post argued, we should dramatically expand police and then, later, we can see about reducing prisons.
The effect of all of this is predictable, and it has been successful throughout history: delude low-information but well-meaning people by arguing that authoritarian “reforms” are actually “progressive” while hiding from them that the massive investments in the existing systems will ultimately further entrench the massive punishment bureaucracy and make the change you claim to want impossible. These professors know exactly how powerful interests will use an argument by Harvard professors that we need 500,000 more police, and it isn’t to dramatically reduce mass incarceration.
An accusation of censorship
Finally, and most relevant to other professors and students, the professors invoke the “woke” objection so popular now as a method of avoiding critique on the political right. After saying that I “pandered to our intellectual culture’s worst features,” they wrote this:
To borrow a quote from a hero of the police expansion movement, there is a lot of “mularkey” here.
This paragraph attempts to make them (the ones who wrote a deceptive article in a non-peer reviewed journal and then ignored most of the critiques to it) seem like the ones deeply interested in debate and the “integrity” of scholarship. The paragraph suggests that I am not engaging in “good faith” or making “relevant counterarguments.” And that I am the one having a corrupting influence on impressionable students by taking the time to set forth serious arguments about an issue to which I have devoted my life, and by daring to seek, in a public forum, a discussion of those critiques. They do not—and cannot—point to a single word, clause, or paragraph in which I have not acted in good faith or in which I said something not “relevant.”
Instead, they frame a rigorous dissection of their work as an attempt to “censor views” and as “anti-intellectual” in a way that somehow undermines “the integrity of scholarly discourse.” This is an insult to the courageous academics the world over who are actually being censored. Who are right now being threatened with the loss of their jobs based on the content of their syllabi. And it is a perversion of the concept of “scholarly discourse.” Pointing out sloppy scholarship, thoroughly debunking poorly constructed argument, and calling out manipulation in scholarly presentation that deceives people is not “censorship.” Pointing out how bad scholarship that omits key points will be used by powerful political and media figures for an authoritarian agenda is not “censorship.” But in this perverted world view, up is down, left is right, serious is unserious. It’s sort of a Harvard gloss on something that might appear in a blog post written by Bari Weiss or Bret Stephens.
This Trumpian attempt to cast scholarly critique of how ideas are supported as some kind of woke attempt at “censorship” of the opinions of two prominent Harvard professors is perhaps the most alarming part of this entire episode. These are two powerful people. I have no doubt that their pro-police views will help their scholarship escape the scrutiny that would accompany an anti-police scholar in the tenure review process at Harvard. They will teach thousands of students at Harvard and have huge platforms. They will become even more prominent public figures during their book tour as the right-wing and corporate media embrace their plan for 500,000 more cops precisely because it comes from self-styled “socialists” and “progressives.”
I tried my best to marshal all of my experience and ability to criticize their approach and to explain why I thought some of their decisions lacked rigor and honesty. I then tried to explain why I believe this kind of faux scholarship that is framed for the media in the way that they framed it poses a danger to our society in this moment of rising fascism because of the effect it can have on students and journalists, and because stuff like this adds a veneer of rigor for the proposals of authoritarian politicians. I didn’t do this because their opinions made me “uncomfortable,” I did it because there are consequences to Harvard professors making public proposals for 500,000 more police right-wing mobs take over school boards, as professors are fired for discussing race, as women and healers are arrested for abortion, as poor people are arrested for voting, as police beat striking university workers, and as people seeking to draw attention to ecological calamity are surveilled, beaten, and arrested. This is not, under any meaningful understanding of the term, “censorship,” but by invoking that specter, they are able to turn their own anti-intellectual failure to address my critiques into a moral stand for the integrity of the academy. Yikes.
The critiques of their work by me and others apparently became widely shared in the academy, and were lifted up by prominent intellectuals at conferences and in private discussions across the U.S. It appears that the “Reply to Alec Karakatsanis” may have been written as a form of damage control for other Harvard professors and allies, and in preparation for arguing that any consequences they face as they go up for tenure or from students are actually part of a “woke” mob who just cannot handle things that make them “uncomfortable.” (One of the professors, hilariously, signed the Harper’s Letter.)
When all is said and done, one fact remains: these two scholars published a poor piece of scholarship that makes serious errors, manipulations, and omissions, and that isn’t particularly novel. This is not the kind of work that would have passed peer review if it had been submitted to a peer reviewed journal, and it isn’t the kind of commitment to ethical rigor that our institutions of learning should countenance.
I think it is best to leave the written debate here. I will attempt to set up an in-person debate between us at Harvard, so that the kinds of evasions that characterize this “reply” are harder to get away with. Those who are interested can read their article, my original critique, and their reply and decide for themselves whether the discussion I attempted to start is a urgent one.
UPDATE: After the posting of this article, things got weirder when some Harvard students contacted me and exposed how one of the professors was using the stressful first-year law student final exams to help further his own goals for this unethical scholarship rather than focusing on basic law school pedagogy:
UPDATE (2-22-2023): The San Francisco Deputy Sheriff’s Association, one of the most rabid and unhinged police unions in the country, has begun urging people to read the article by the Harvard professors, through a twitter account supposedly paid for by its Policial Action Committee:
They further explain that the article, which they call “the MIT study” because the Harvard law professors who started the journal publish it through MIT, is proof that “the civilianization of police will go down in history as the biggest mistake any city can make.” In what can only be understood as a dire fascist warning, the police union, relying on the Harvard professors’ article, warns us: “Only a new leader that will make drastic changes can correct the course.”
UPDATE: (3/8/2023) Two employees of the far right-wing Manhattan Institute published an article today called “We’re Underfunding the Police,” which cites to the Harvard professors’ article as a key piece of evidence.
 They likely opened their piece with this bombshell, but misleading and irrelevant, international comparison to get more attention for the piece.
 They also strangely ignored the costs of the massive increase in other bureaucracies that would result from 7.8 million more arrests, including prosecutors, judges, probation officers, drug testing, stay away orders, fines and fees, GPS monitoring, etc. All of this leads to an unprecedented involvement of government penal bureaucracy in surveilling and controlling the lives of millions of additional people.
 The premise of their proposal—reduction in prison population and thus cost of incarceration—is a strange starting point. They are essentially saying “Imagine a fantasy world where everyone agrees to massively reduce incarceration, what should we do with the resulting budget surplus?” Their answer is policing. But if we are already in a political world where mass incarceration has ended, what reason is there that those funds could not be used for redistributive ends?
 They initially framed their argument as being that more police would be better at reducing crime than more prisons. This is obvious, because they agree with the literature that more imprisonment does not reduce crime at all. But comparing police to a knowingly ineffective policy says nothing about whether more police are preferable to other policies. The comparator for their plan shouldn’t be bad policies, it should be other good policies.
 They assert that any policy effort at redistribution “will happen at the federal level” because state and local governments “cannot do much about concentrated disadvantage.” So, they are only offering advice on what local governments can do with the thing they control: police. This is a wildly controversial claim that contradicts a lot of different areas of research, but it seems par for the course with them. I am aware of a number of things that local and state governments can do to reduce inequality and crime, improve health care, education, and community cohesion.
Thank you for this phenomenal work. You not only thoroughly describe how they are wrong but why they are, and the consequences that will follow. I think this is one of your most important pieces because many people would just take these professors words on the basis that they are Harvard "progressives," therefore they have done the research and can't be questioned.
To call your criticism "unserious" while ignoring 90% of what you said and doubling down on their claim that increasing police will reduce incarcerated populations is just mind blowing stuff.
Keep up the good fight, Alec! Your intellectual rigor is refreshing and inspiring. I live in the Boston area so keep us posted if an in-person debate is scheduled.